Charli Collier, a center from the University of Texas, was selected No. 1 over all by the Dallas Wings in the W.N.B.A.’s virtual draft on Thursday, fulfilling the dream of her late father that she be the top pick. Collier, who is from Texas and was widely projected to be the first pick, averaged 19 points and 11.3 rebounds per game in the 2020-21 season.
Collier, surrounded by her mother, brother and boyfriend, pointed to the sky as she was announced as the first pick.
“We sat down in the hospital bed, and we wrote down goals,” she said, referring to her father, Elliott. “This was one of them. He’s here with me.”
The Wings also had the No. 2 overall pick and used it to select Awak Kuier, who plays professionally for Virtus Eirene Ragusa in Italy. She will be the W.N.B.A.’s first Finnish player and, because of her defensive skills, has been compared to Chicago’s Candace Parker, who won last season’s Defensive Player of the Year Award with Los Angeles. This was the first time in league history that one team had the top two picks.
The Wings also selected Chelsea Dungee of Arkansas, the Southeastern Conference’s leading scorer, with the No. 5 overall pick, and started the second round by selecting Dana Evans, a 5-foot-6 guard from Louisville who twice won the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year Award.
The Atlanta Dream, which were sold to new ownership in February, selected Aari McDonald of Arizona with the No. 3 pick. McDonald, a 5-foot-6 guard, emerged as a star for the Wildcats in the 2020-21 season, leading them to the N.C.A.A. title game for the first time in program history. McDonald scored more points than anyone in the tournament and helped keep UConn to its lowest-scoring game of the season in the national semifinals to advance to the championship, which the Wildcats lost to Stanford.
The player-driven fight to oust the Dream’s now-former owner, Kelly Loeffler, because of the former Georgia senator’s disparaging comments about the Black Lives Matter movement was a defining effort during the W.N.B.A.’s 2020 season. The league, which has been ahead of others in discussions about social justice, plans to continue sparking discussions about advocacy this season, W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters on Tuesday.
“The players want to be about change, and they want to have their hand in that change,” she said. “Whether it’s civic engagement or voting rights or health equity or other issues that many of them are passionate about, I really look forward to seeing what they do this year and handling any crises that come our way.”
“Sports is only one of the vast number of industries, markets, and forums where we need to drive more equitable representation,” she wrote, adding that the most important areas to change were “the number of female athletes sponsored by a company, the amount of money spent promoting the women’s game, and the breadth and depth of coverage dedicated to women’s sports.”
Engelbert also said on Tuesday that the league was open to expanding, as women’s sports have gained more attention in recent years. Viewership of the 2020 W.N.B.A. finals was up 15 percent year over year, according to ESPN, and viewership of the title game was up 34 percent. The college championship between Stanford and Arizona was the most viewed title game since 2014, according to ESPN, which broadcast this year’s women’s tournament.
During Thursday’s draft, which was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, many draftees, like Collier, were shown celebrating their selections while surrounded by friends and family.
The Las Vegas Aces picked the 19-year-old Iliana Rupert, a 6-foot-4 center from France, with the No. 12 pick and Destiny Slocum of Arkansas with the No. 14 pick. An emotional Rupert spoke with ESPN’s Holly Rowe with her mother and brother at her sides.
“It’s really a family affair,” Rupert said of her late father, Thierry Rupert, who died in 2013 and played professionally in France. “And I am really happy to continue this and to continue to honor his name in the U.S. now.”
Stanford’s Kiana Williams, who was drafted with the sixth pick of the second round by the Seattle Storm, spoke about the transition to the W.N.B.A.
“I have the opportunity to learn from Sue Bird, one of the best point guards to play the game,” Williams said. “I’m leaving one winning atmosphere going into another winning atmosphere.”
The season, the league’s 25th, will be played in teams’ home cities, some arenas with a limited number of fans in the stands, in accordance with local health officials’ recommendations. Each team will play 32 games in the regular season, down from the planned 36, with reduced travel because of the pandemic. The 2020 season was played in a bubble environment at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., because of the pandemic.
The 2021 season tips off on May 14, when the Liberty host the Fever at Barclays Center. On Thursday, the Fever chose Kysre Gondrezick of West Virginia with the No. 4 overall pick in the first round, and the Liberty chose Michaela Onyenwere from U.C.L.A., at No. 6. Both teams are hoping to bounce back after down seasons last year.
The Liberty used last year’s No. 1 overall pick to select Sabrina Ionescu, who severely sprained her ankle in her third game and missed the rest of the season.
“I’m just glad were on the same side now,” Onyenwere said of Ionescu, who also played in the Pac-12, with Oregon. The Liberty also chose DiDi Richards, a guard from Baylor, in the second round.
Arella Guirantes, a New York native who averaged 21.3 points per game in the 2020-21 season for Rutgers and told The New York Times that she hoped to play for the Liberty, fell to the second round. The Los Angeles Sparks selected her with the No. 22 overall pick.